Toronto’s restaurant business: The good, the bad and the ugly
I met the nasty edge of the restaurant business the other day. I was at an auction where they sell off all the leftover crap from restaurants, cafés and bars that go out of business. It is a depressing place, selling broken dreams and busted equipment—vultures picking at the last bits of restaurant failures. They sell everything from big Second Cup signs to giant Hobart mixers to espresso machines to refrigerators to stoves to the item the auctioneer described as “a real beauty—a complete mop-and-bucket set!” I was introduced to the auction’s owner, a big Floridian-looking dude who shook my hand and smirked, telling me that my hairs are going to turn grey soon and how he was looking forward to seeing my restaurant turn me into an old man. Then he walked away. This is the dark side of the business, which turns young, happy men into old and bitter men, and sends new chefs off into the night on drunken binges. There was a chef in full outfit there, running around with a bull-like demeanour, as though he was going to run over anybody who got in his way. It doesn’t have to be that way.
For all those types of guys, there are good ones like my friend K.K. He used to have a café on Kensington Avenue called Kensington Café, but everybody just called it K.K.’s. I spent a lot of time there after school, lingering in his kitchen just talking to him. He tipped me off that Michael Stadtländer was coming into the city to do a dinner at K.K.’s one night. I showed up, helped Nobuyo (Stadtländer’s wife) cut bread and met the chef himself. Six months later, I was cooking at his place—Eigensinn Farm.
K.K. called me out of the blue recently because he’s got a ton of pots, pans and equipment stuffed in his garage that he’s looking to sell. Man, he wasn’t kidding. He had everything: ice cream maker, juicer, tons of beautiful pots and pans, tongs, shaving dishes—he’s even got madeleine trays. On his lawn were two big stainless steel sinks from the old café, disrupting the ambience of his wife’s dinner parties. K.K. is a great guy. There is something reassuring and special about using his old stuff from the café and the new stuff he has been stashing. It makes this all feel like I made the right choice coming home to Toronto—and maybe I can transcend the bullshit and really bring something special to the city. K.K. even had a mop-and-bucket set stuffed away in that garage.